War, Violence on the Wane? Humanity More Empathetic?

Violence“Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Chances are this statement strikes you as counterintuitive. Rest assured that its author, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, anticipated your skepticism. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind and human nature. He has been named Humanist of the Year and was listed among Prospect magazine’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers” and Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”

His 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, charts the historical trajectory of violence and presents a case for a verifiable drop in the rate of reliance on violence in human civilization. Professor Pinker knows this conclusion will contradict the prevailing impression most people have of the perils of the present day. He considers the tendency to distort the danger of the modern era a “cognitive illusion” reinforced by the “if it bleeds it leads” media template.

While acknowledging that humankind’s capacity for destruction has increased (relative to the proliferation of nuclear weapons), Pinker insists that the rate at which humanity resorts to violence has been receding and continues to decline. He suggests that we erroneously glamorize the past as genteel and exaggerate the present as overly perilous. Among the factors to which he attributes the trend away from violence is what he calls the “escalator of reason”the increasing cognitive capacity of human beings. As an evolutionary psychologist, Pinker foresees a path of human adaptation and development from aggression to increased empathy.

One example of enlightened human reasoning offered is humanity’s rejection of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures:

“The Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values. . . . Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence. . . .

“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. . . .

“If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.

“Christians downplay the wrathful deity of the Old Testament in favor of a newer conception of God, exemplified in the New Testament (the Christian Bible) by his son Jesus, the Prince of Peace.”

Here Pinker portrays Jesus as a human constructa complete makeover of the God concept. Because the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is perceived as a violent bully, He is distasteful to modern sensitivities. Therefore, through the “escalator of reason,” humankind has reinvented and replaced Him with Jesus, who is more suited to our empathetic evolutionary state.

However, this theory fails to recognize the close relationship between Jesus of the Apostolic Writings and the two divine Beings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus said His mission and message came from the Father (John 5:19–20, 30). He tells His followers that if they have seen Him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9–11). Jesus is completely and consistently aligned with His Father (John 17:4–5, 11, 21). His definition of violence, too, differs from the mainstream; to Jesus, to hate another person is akin to murder.

For many, Pinker’s empirical premise and the suggestion that faith can be placed on enhanced human reasoning remains unsatisfying. Even while striving to be empathetic, they will lock their doors tonight and pray as Jesus taught, asking to be divinely delivered from evil in all its forms.

David Hulme and Tom Fitzpatrick

Tags: war, violence, human nature, empathy